Purdue's roller coaster ride continues

This is going to be one of those roller coaster seasons for Purdue, with no end to the ride in sight.

WEST LAFAYETTE - It has become clear now that this is going to be one of those college basketball seasons during which Purdue fans are going to feel like they are on a roller coaster ride.

Up one minute. Ready to leave the building or change the channel the next.

Sunday afternoon was one of those games. For almost 34 minutes, the Boilermakers appeared to be on the brink of handing this one to a Nebraska team that has a fun coach (Tim Miles), a new arena and a fan base that is all about football, football and more football.

The Cornhuskers (8-8, 0-4 in the Big Ten) watched the Boilermakers throw lots of errant passes - we saw enough of that in Ross-Ade Stadium in the fall - and led 58-55 with 6:43 remaining. But just at the moment when it appeared Purdue would slip to 0-3 in the Big Ten, Sterling Carter, Ronnie Johnson and A.J. Hammons fueled a 15-6 game-closing run to escape with a 70-64 victory in front of a small and quiet crowd of 9,182.

While I am convinced this team will struggle - because of its inconsistency - to avoid a second-division Big Ten finish, if you look at the big picture, Purdue has a chance to get very close to 20 victories and still not be a really relevant national player.

The three worst teams in the Big Ten are Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern, which were a collective 0-11 in league play before Northwestern played Illinois on Sunday night in Evanston.

And guess what? Purdue gets to play those three a collective six times - two each - among its 18 regular season conference contests. That's 33 percent of its games in the league against three talent-challenged clubs. Meanwhile, Purdue has single plays against Illinois, Michigan State, Indiana and Iowa, each of which is or will be dangerous by season's end.

If Purdue runs the table against the bottom three, it will have 16 victories at a minimum. Remember how many times Purdue won last year? If you said 16, treat yourself to an extra scoop of ice cream for dessert.

Yet with this inconsistency that drives the fans and the coaching staff crazy, six collective victories against Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern can not be taken for granted. If you don't believe me, watch the replay of the first 34 minutes of Sunday's game.

At winning time, Carter, Johnson and Hammons literally put their best foot forward to permit Purdue to escape with victory No. 1 against the bottom end trio that is experiencing tough times on the basketball court these days.

"We stayed poised and had faith in each other," Carter, who had eight points and seven rebounds, said when asked how Purdue rallied to win a game that it was in serious danger of losing. "We didn't let being down three with six minutes to go bother us. We just came coming."

Hammons said that when Purdue finally was able to contain Nebraska's Terran Petteway (19 points and nine rebounds), the Boilermakers had their path to victory.

"We were making them take quick shots, and then we got the ball to the other end," Hammons said of the 15-6 finish.

Purdue coach Matt Painter said that once the Boilermakers began protecting the ball in the second half, they accomplished what they needed to accomplish to improve to 11-5, 1-2.

"We literally threw it to them three times," Painter said. "At the end, we did a better job of getting long rebounds and getting stops on the defensive end. It is so important to be able to take care of the basketball and get stops and chase down long rebounds."

It was during that stretch that second-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles' worst fears were realized.

"We took two bad shots, missed two free throws and had two bad turnovers," Miles said of what led to the Cornhuskers' fifth consecutive defeat. "The other two possessions, we just missed shots. We got what we wanted, but they just didn't go. You can't have that many empty possessions.

"Until the end, I thought we had done a pretty good job on all of their perimeters. Their posts were getting us all day, and then Ronnie Johnson got a driving line and finished like he does. In man to man, he is tough. He took advantage of that."

And so Purdue got off this particular roller coaster ride without any serious damage. But unless the consistency issue and the woes at the free throw line cease, the Boilermakers may not be so lucky next time, even with a very friendly Big Ten Conference schedule.

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